From “The X-Files” in 1993 to “Stranger Things” in 2016, popular culture has long been certain that the government’s been experimenting successfully with psychic powers, despite our phone calls to Miss Cleo never producing the winning lottery numbers we hoped for.
The CIA’s efforts in the realm of psychic phenomena have been a matter of public knowledge for some time, but the general assumption is that, like dosing unsuspecting employees with LSD, the psychic CIA programs were failures from the start, spurred by the possibility of attaining a strategic advantage that wasn’t within scientific parameters, but ultimately proved foolhardy in scope and execution. I share this assessment of the various attempts at weaponizing the supernatural—things like remote viewing, telekinesis, and clairvoyance are all interesting bits of science fiction in my opinion—but according to a declassified CIA report, my opinion is wrong.
In a report produced for the CIA in 1995 titled “An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning,” a number of these seemingly unbelievable superpowers have been statistically proven to be real, and potentially even useful in some of the ways depicted in the movies and television shows of the past decades. Dr. Jessica Utts, a professor of statistics at the University of California, Irvine, produced the peer-reviewed paper for the CIA by conducting a meta-analysis of psychic experiments done both by the federal government and private organizations—and she came to some startling conclusions.
“Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established,” The report states. “The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted.”
The 32-page document examines the varied efforts to investigate and ultimately harness psychic phenomena like remote viewing, wherein a subject can “see” locations anywhere in the world through their mind’s eye and provide valuable intel on said locations to government officials. Further, it even posits that “precognition,” or the ability to predict the future, “appears to work quite well.”
“The magnitude of psychic functioning exhibited appears to be in the range between what social scientists call a small and medium effect. That means that it is reliable enough to be replicated in properly conducted experiments, with sufficient trials to achieve the long-run statistical results needed for replicability.”
The report discusses results of a number of experiments, including one instance in which two different people who were supposedly capable of remote viewing were able to accurately describe a secret government facility, both internally and externally, as well as code words and personnel found within the site. Per the report, their success prompted an investigation into the security of the location, as officials were concerned that its secrecy had been compromised as an explanation for their testimonies.
One of the two “viewers” in question proceeded to describe a similar site in use by communist opposition in the Urals, which was then also verified by intelligence officials. According to the document, “The two reports for the West Virginia site, and the report for the Urals site, were verified by personnel in the sponsor organization as being substantially correct.”
The report is critical at times of the methodologies employed by experiments seeking to verify or exercise psychic phenomena, but goes on to state that as methodologies improved in later experiments, success rates did not decrease or become more sporadic.
“However, the fact that the same level of functioning continued to hold in the later experiments, which did not contain those flaws, lends support to the idea that the methodological problems cannot account for the results.”
Ultimately, the report posits that there is far more we don’t know about the human capacity for psychic operations than what we do. When attempting to address whether or not individuals with psychic powers could be utilized in such a manner as to actually benefit military operations, Dr. Utts suggests, “The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this report, but some speculations can be made about how to increase the usefulness.”
Included among those recommendations was an effort to seek out candidates with a natural inclination for things like remote viewing, because although the experiments suggested that there may be latent abilities inherent to all human beings, it seems more productive to recruit those with a unique talent than to attempt to train a candidate in a form of science we know so little about.
The report concludes that it is “clear” that “anomalous cognition is possible and has been demonstrated. This conclusion is not based on belief, but rather on commonly accepted scientific criteria.” According to Doctor Utts’ assessment of the data, she recommends to the CIA that no further resources be “wasted” in attempting to ascertain whether or not these psychic anomalies are real, and that instead the CIA should focus on how it happens, as well as how best to leverage those findings into a tool for intelligence gathering.
“Resources should be directed to the pertinent questions about how this ability works. I am confident that the questions are no more elusive than any other questions in science dealing with small- to medium-sized effects, and that if appropriate resources are targeted to appropriate questions, we can have answers within the next decade.”
Of course, the paper was produced in 1995, so if the CIA took Dr. Utts’ appraisal to heart, they may have made dramatic advances in “anomalous cognition” by 2005, according to her timeline.
It’s worth noting, however, that studies such as this are merely an analysis of experiments conducted by others over a large span of time and in incredibly varied circumstances. Also important to remember is that the report is the assessment of a single statistician, and while her credentials are sound, it should truly be seen as a well-supported opinion, rather than irrefutable evidence of Professor Xavier-like government psychics being around since the ’90s.
To be honest, my stance on whether or not I believe in things like remote viewing and precognition hasn’t changed much despite the evidence provided in the report. But that tiny bit of movement in my own cognition is no small feat. Whereas I initially laughed the subject off, I found myself taking a break from my research to look out the window and wonder if somewhere out there, far beyond the Georgian forests and even past the horizon, a psychic spook was looking back at me from their secure bunker, laughing at my uncertainty regarding the techniques they’ve mastered, and jotting down notes about how many firearms I keep within arm’s reach at my desk…which are, of course, more than I need.
Unless it’s true.
Image courtesy of the BBC